Mon, May 16, 2011 - Page 13 News List

The lot of Afghan women

Zarghuna Kargar did something nearly impossible for many women in Afghanistan — she divorced her husband

By Susanna Rustin  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Her career flourished, as Afghan Woman’s Hour achieved audience figures in the millions. But as her life became increasingly unhappy, Kargar found herself moved by the harrowing first-person stories featured on the program to look again at her life.

“I felt that discussing these kinds of women, their stories and the way they talked, and what they wanted, empowered me. I was feeling a kind of hypocrisy inside me because the experts I invited on the program were giving all this advice, but I was not making decisions in my own life.”

It was the story of Anesa, a woman married to a gay husband who moved his lover into the family home, that finally gave her the push she needed. For four years, Anesa said, she lived with her children, her husband and his lover. The lover was the favorite, while her sons were beaten and often went hungry. Yet she was unable to leave. Though Anesa’s husband’s homosexuality was frowned on by Afghan society, and his children victimized as a result, if she divorced him she would lose them. She often thought about killing herself.

In the office, Kargar and her BBC World Service colleagues discussed divorce and the insurmountable problems facing women in Afghanistan who wished to leave their husbands. “And I was thinking, actually I have choice. I was educated, I had a good job and no children. I was capable of doing it and I had the support of the legal system.”

In 2006, aged 24, and having lost all hope and respect for the relationship, she asked her husband to leave. At first he was angry, and tried, with her parents, to make her change her mind. But she stood her ground, and in the end the divorce papers came from him. He has since remarried.

Last year, the funding for Afghan Woman’s Hour was cut, and Kargar transferred to the Afghan news service. The program was not without its critics, as the money came from the UK Foreign Office’s counter-terror funds, but Kargar is passionately proud of its role in promoting women’s rights and freedoms.

When she arrived in the UK as an 18-year-old in August 2001, the Sept. 11 attacks were still a month off. Ten years on, she supports the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and fears a return to even greater chaos. Her father, who was a government official during the Soviet invasion, and later worked as a writer on the World Service’s Afghan soap opera, New Home New Life, now teaches Pashtun to British soldiers.

But while she was inspired by the young revolutionaries in Tahrir Square in Cairo, she is made uncomfortable by the celebrations in the West of the death of Osama bin Laden.

She kept her divorce secret from colleagues for two years after it happened, and is still working through her feelings about what happened, wiping away tears when she recalls her wedding. “I was just very upset, and very angry with everything. When they talked about the decorations, I said ‘Just take the chairs from the kitchen! I don’t care!’ And I really didn’t care. It was very difficult.”

Her family hopes that she will remarry one day, and she says that although two of her sisters’ arranged marriages have worked out well, her parents have decisively broken with the custom. She sees them every week and has forgiven them for her earlier unhappiness. They are proud of her book, she says — though she has been warned against publishing pictures of her relatives, including childhood photographs.

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